This stout muscular Neanderthal body required a lot of nutrition, exactly how many calories is debated, but we do know what they ate. They hunted rhinoceroses, bison, brown bear, red deer, and horses, eating the meat and bone marrow. Neanderthals would focus on prime-aged adult prey as opposed to juveniles or older adults, with this behavior starting around 250 kya from evidence at Hayonim cave in Israel. Neanderthals would sometimes focus on a single species, like at Mauran France, where a Neanderthal butchery site contained around 4,000 bison remains. Other places in France and Germany were specialized bovid kill sites. At Salzgitter-Lebenstedt Germany there is a Neanderthal hunting site dedicated to reindeer, and it was only used in early Autumn during their annual migrations. What Neanderthals hunted depended entirely on the local climate, in warm forests they hunted solitary game but in colder tundra they hunted herds.
|Neanderthals hunting a rhinoceros
Neanderthals also famously hunted mammoths, as evidenced by the site at La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey. In our popular imagination, this site has spawned the idea that Neanderthals herded mammoths off cliffs as if they were giant furry elephantine lemmings. This idea attempted to explain the severe damage seen in mammoth leg bones at the site, which would have been difficult for Neanderthals to accomplish with tools. While this is still unexplained, the area is most likely a mammoth processing site. Bone heaps are arranged in patterns, with some heaps containing mainly skulls and ribs, and others containing limbs and pelvic bones. “I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland...and they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place.” -Beccy Scott. Since the bone piles were intentionally divided, it is most likely a result of butchering and organizing. Burnt bone charcoal has also been found, signaling that the bones were used for fuel. The site is amazingly well preserved, stemming from fine silt dust which blew over the site after its abandonment.
|Neanderthals hunting mammoths off the cliffs at Jersey, which definitely still happened regardless of what Beccy Scott or any informed scientists say
After big game meat, Neanderthals ate any living creature they could get their hands on. Tortoises, shellfish, hares, rabbits, birds, molluscs, seals, dolphins were all eaten when Neanderthals had the opportunity. “Neanderthals harvested live molluscs on the rocks for eating, transported them to their living sites in wet algae bundles, and discarded their shells after eating the flesh...They did this with limpets, mussels, and topshells.” -Joao Zilhao. The Neanderthal diet is not only carnivorous, but opportunistic and omnivorous, very similar to our own.
More recently, we have greatly expanded our understanding of the Neanderthal diet. Not only did they eat meat, but they also ate plants! Evidence from fecal remains at El Salt in Spain show phytosterol (a compound similar to cholesterol found in plants). “It would take a significant plant intake to produce even a small amount of metabolized phytosterol.” -Ainara Sistiaga. While it is possible that they obtained phytosterol from eating the stomachs of herbivores, other evidence does not support this idea. Microscopic analysis of fossilized tartar on Neanderthal teeth has found starch granules, cattails, oats, and grains. Not only eaten raw, but cooked! The process of cooking changes the structure of these grains, which is still apparent after fossilization. Cooking grains would require a container, which (as seen in modern humans) would most likely be either a stuffed animal stomach or a bundle of large wrapped up leaves.
Other evidence points to plant use outside of nutrition, “The evidence indicating this individual [Neanderthal] was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and chamomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste.” -Stephen Buckley. Selected for reasons other than taste leaves quite a large margin for theorizing. The simplest answer is that Neanderthals developed a taste for bitterness, not so far removed from the actions of people today. This points to Neanderthals collecting food based on criterion other than immediate practicality, an interesting mental shift related to culture. The other, more outlandish claim, would be that Neanderthals ate bitter plants as medicine. All indigenous human cultures have an understanding of the use of regional plants, and since Neanderthals discovered edible plants through experimentation it is not unreasonable to say that they too had this knowledge. Since neither explanation has much evidence, the simplest wins for now – they may have just enjoyed bitter food.
Hunting goes hand in hand with technology. Not only do animals provide meat, but the entirety of their bodies are used to complement all aspects of daily needs. Modern humans make needles, awls, and spear heads from animal bones. Sinews, gut, and tendons are used to bind tools or wooden hafts. Stomachs are used as bags for carrying water or blood. Fat is used to waterproof leather boots and clothing. Grease is smeared on exposed skin for insulation or to ward off insects. Hair is twisted to make thread. Skins are used to make bags, cloths, shoes, blankets, and shelters. While Neanderthals probably did not do exactly all these things, they must have used the animal to the best of their capabilities.
|A group of Homo Erectus butchering an elephant